SCOOP! Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 netbook: first Australian review

Dell’s entry into the netbook market has been perhaps the most anticipated since Asus first defined the category barely one short year ago with the original 7-in Eee PC. It’s certainly been the longest in the making – the PC colossus first revealed its plans for a mini-notebook at the end of May and APCmag.com got a close-up look at a prototype in early June.

Now the Inspiron Mini 9 has arrived and it’s set to shake up the netbook scene. Besides boasting an appealing checklist of features in its own right the Dell brand comes with plenty of mainstream marketing muscle which will continue to drive interest in netbooks.

Dell is already taking orders for its fresh-baked netbook through its local website with first deliveries landing on September 10. But we got our hands on the very first Inspiron Mini 9 in Australia to bring you this exclusive review.

Above: the very sexy machine in question. Unfortunately swank New York apartment is a serving suggestion only. (So is Linux at least for now…)

Core system specs

It’s no surprise that Dell settled on Intel’s N270 1.6GHz Atom processor as the Mini 9’s powerplant – the N270 is the engine of choice for most netbooks. It’s paired with 1GB of RAM which the upgrade set will be pleased to hear is fitted as a single stick into an easily accessible DIMM slot. That combo of processor and RAM puts a surprising amount of pep into Windows XP and the most common day-to-day productivity and multimedia applications.

However instead of a hard disk Dell chose a solid state drive – specifically the UM-SSD (Ultra Mobile Solid State Drive) supplied by OEM company STEC and built into a PCI Express Mini Card format with a PATA interface and inbuilt controller. STEC claims the UM-SSD reads up to 85MB/s and writes at up to 25MB/s.

Above: The Inspiron Mini 9 eschews a hard disk for a 16GB solid state drive.

The Australian edition of the Mini 9 sports a 16GB drive and this is one of several differences you’ll note between the local and overseas versions. Dell has drawn up a score of variations on the Mini 9’s basic blueprint with each region able to choose the model they feel is best suited to the local market. For example the base US build (at US$349) has only a 4GB drive 512MB of RAM no webcam and no Bluetooth; an extra US$100 gets you double the SSD and RAM a 1.3 megapixel webcam and Bluetooth.

Considering that our Mini 9 has Bluetooth the higher-spec webcam and a 16GB SSD on the face of it we’ve landed Dell’s top shelf spec. However Linux failed to make the cut. While customers in other countries can order a Mini 9 preloaded with Ubuntu 8 – including the USA’s entry-level system – the local launch of the Mini Inspiron 9 is limited to Windows XP Home SP3.

So where’s Linux..?

Stuart Buxton Inspiron brand manager for Dell ANZ told APCmag.com that while Linux was on the company’s radar and certainly was available from the Mini’s master spec list “we’re not seeing customer demand (in Australia) for Linux at this time.”  

“We’ve based our decisions on market research data and we’ve run focus groups in Australia for this product” Buxton says. “With the model we selected we prioritised what the customers were looking for with the features the price point and the operating system. We haven’t seen clear signals on Linux being a priority although we’ll continue to monitor consumer sentiment on Linux.”

Happily the Mini 9 isn’t a one-trick pony. This debut netbook which Dell identifies as the model 910 is only the first of several configurations we’ll see. Dell plans to add to the Mini 9 family before the year is out.

“We’ll be looking at add models in November” Buxton confirms. This could conceivably include Linux depending on local demand. It’s also worth noting that STEC lists their UM-SSD module as being available in a 32GB capacity as well so this could be on the roadmap for a future update to the Mini 9.

Buxton also says the Mini 9’s range of colours will be “reviewed around November. We’ll look at market feedback on the launch product and consider other colour options at that time” . US customers can already buy a white-clad Mini 9 and we’d expect that Dell would be quick to borrow other colours from the palette of its popular Inspiron and Studio consumer laptops.

3G broadband

Closer to the horizon is a drop-in 3G mobile broadband modem. “We’ll put that in as soon as we can get our mitts on it!” Buxton enthuses although there’s no set timeframe or price. Dell is in the forefront of 3G broadband for its laptops with Ericsson mini-card modules approved for both the Telstra Next G and Vodafone 3G networks. The Mini 9 already has a spare mini-card slot labelled WWAN and we’d expect the same Ericcson silicon (rated at 7.2Mbps) to find its way into the Mini 9 before long.

Above: WWAN marks the spot: if Dell was planning to hide its aspirations for including a 3G/HSDPA/WiMax modem in this machine at some point the motherboard design kinda gives it away. Here’s the empty mini-card slot for the forthcoming 3G modem. The same handy bay which is on the Mini 9’s underbelly and revealed by removing two screws also provides access to containing the solid state drive RAM slot and Broadcom 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card.

Battery

Playing a rim shot off buyer dissatisfaction with some other netbooks due to lower-than-expected battery life Dell has married the Mini 9’s solid state drive to a standard four-cell battery rather than a three-cell unit. It’s a midway measure that provides more time between recharges than the oft-criticised three-cell batteries while avoiding the slightly larger footprint and higher cost of a six-cell slab. However don’t rule out an optional six-cell battery at some stage as Buxton says this is one of the many possible Mini 9 enhancements that will be reviewed down the line.

None the less the four-cell battery holds up exceptionally well. It’s a rule of thumb that you should expect as much as one hour per cell and during our tests the Mini 9 was almost bang on target. We switched on the 11g WiFi set the screen brightness to 66% wound the volume to full and sat back to enjoy a handful of DiVX videos.

It took slightly more than three hours before the battery went belly up which is a decent achievement considering that video playback doesn’t permit the brief ‘downtime’ periods of typing emailing and web browsing during which the CPU can throttle back. We’d expect to hit 3.5 hours under more conventional usage especially with wireless sometimes disabled.

Design

The Mini 9 doesn’t break the mould set by its netbook rivals but one side effect of waiting a little longer means Dell gets to learn from other manufacturers what works and what doesn’t. The Mini 9 has also benefited from user feedback most clearly in the layout of the keyboard.

Shortcuts for the function keys which were absent in the prototype stages have returned as a row of Fn+ modifiers along the middle row of the keyboard. It’s a move that’s certain to be welcomed by power typists – unless they need to stab at F11 or F12 because those last two function keys are missing.

The top row of keys use Fn+ modifiers for a predictable range of hardware controls such as dropping the Mini 9 into standby mode switching the screen over to an external monitor and whatever the hell Print Screen is used for these days (anyone? Bueller? Anyone?).

Above: In lieu of a dedicated hardware switch this pop-up utility (activated by pressing Fn+2) lets you deftly activate or shut down Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi.

However while the relevant Fn+ taps summon up on-screen utilities for wireless (to enable or disable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi) and battery level the volume and screen brightness keys are disappointingly unaccompanied by any such visual prompts.

Above: The Mini 9’s keyboard reinstates the Function keys (well most of them) and adopts a unique sealed design to protect against those ‘ooops’ moments involving coffee or soft drink.

The keyboard itself is an odd yet effective melange of styles. The alphanumeric keys are close to full size (we’d estimate around 85%) with the primary Shift Ctrl and Fn keys also amply sized yet the navigation and symbol keys (along with Tabs Caps Lock and Right Shift) are much slimmer.

Is it a superior keyboard to the HP 2133 or Acer Aspire One? That’s a hard call because the very feel of the Mini 9’s keyboard is so different but we liked it. It’s quite comfortable with a crisp movement and well-defined travel although it’s a little on the noisy side. Dell has also adopted a sealed keyboard design to help the Mini 9 withstand liquid spills and avoid trapping breadcrumbs.

A pair of slightly loose-feeling trackpad buttons sit below the touch-sensitive surface in the conventional and thus familiar layout rather than the odd style of some netbooks that park the buttons either side of the pad. The pad is also wider than on some netbooks and appears neatly integrated into the front wrist rest with a finely textured surface for nimble traction and a matching silvered surface.

The screen is exceptionally bright and sharp with LED backlighting and driven to a maximum resolution of 1024 x 600; beneath it sits a pair of punchy speakers.

The selection of ports is fairly standard. A power socket two USB 2.0 jacks and a memory card reader (suitable for SD and Memory Stick wafers) are ranged along the left side with a third USB port 10/100 Ethernet VGA out and audio in/out along the right side. Two small LEDs on the leading edge indicate power and battery status while a tiny pin microphone is concealed under the chassis’ curvature in front of the trackpad.

Flip the Mini 9 onto its back and a single panel provides fast access to a bay containing the solid state drive memory slot card and an empty bay marked ‘WWAN’ for the optional 3G mini-card.

Like the keyboard and battery the overall feel is another balancing act. The Mini 9 doesn’t have the cheap toy-like plastic feel of early model Eee PCs but at just under 1kg it’s certainly no bruiser. The screen closes with a reassuringly confident snap. 

Bundled software

While Dell hasn’t infected the Mini 9 with its usual dose of unwanted bloatware there are a few additions sitting atop the preloaded Windows XP Home OS. These include Google Desktop 4.0 and the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer a 90-day trial edition of McAfee Security 2008 and Dell’s own webcam videochat software.

Above: Thankfully the somewhat limited space of the 16GB SSD drive isn’t cluttered by too much crapware. Our favourite inclusion is the free 2GB of online file storage at Box.net.

More appealing and certainly very useful for the netbook’s target audience of mobile mavens is a free account with online storage provider Box.net. While Box.net offers a free lifetime ‘Lite’ account of 1GB and a maximum file upload of 10MB per file Inspiron Mini 9 owners get one free year on Box.net’s 2GB plan (with a maximum uploads of 50MB per file). Renewing the 2GB plan costs US$2 per month; you can also step up to 5GB at $8 per month or ‘downgrade’ to the free 1GB plan and never pay a cent.

Over to you…

The Inspiron Mini 9 brings to seven the number of netbooks on the Aussie market and that includes the three models of the Eee PC. Have you been holding out for the Mini 9? Has Dell done its sums and hit the right mix of features and price? Share your thoughts with the rest of the APCmag.com community…